Leading article: This is what passengers want to hear

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The Independent Online

Eighteen years have passed since British Rail was broken up into more than 100 companies and sold to private investors. The government of the day, headed by John Major, believed that by introducing competition and private innovation to a state-owned monopoly it would end the railway system's chronic dependence on subsidy and improve efficiency.

Nearly two decades later, we have Europe's most expensive railway system. Rail fares are the highest in Europe and are due to rise next January by 3 per cent more than inflation. While other industries have found ways to make themselves more efficient, unit costs on the railway system have barely changed since the 1990s, making it around 40 per cent more expensive here than in the rest of the EU.

This is no way to run a railroad. And yet despite the expense, more and more people are using the railway systems. The privatised rail companies can look forward to an increase in customers which would be the envy of private firms in other lines of business. So the suggestion in yesterday's report by Sir Roy McNulty that the annual cost of running the railways could be reduced by 30 per cent, or a little over £1bn a year, by 2019 does not seem unreasonable.

There is also a lot to be said for his recommendation that the highly complex fare structure should be levelled out. Peak-time fares are too high, producing the absurd situation where half-empty trains leave a few minutes before the 7pm watershed, to be followed only minutes afterwards by a dangerously overcrowded off-peak train.

One of the attractions from the Government's point of view is that a more efficient railway may eventually be weaned off government subsidy altogether. In the Treasury that may seem like the top priority, but it should not be. Comfortable, affordable, efficient rail travel is an important component in the quality of life, and it is an environmentally friendly way to travel.

As trains improve and costs come down, the first to feel the benefits should be rail travellers, not the bean-counters in the Treasury.

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